Cohen: I am more proud of my Jewish identity than anyone can ever hate me for it

Lily Cohen, Op-Ed Contributor

There is no place where I feel more at home than Shabbat services at Hillel, surrounded by other Jewish students praying proudly and passionately. During the past three years, that hour on Friday nights has become my refuge; a break from the fast-paced nature of Northwestern and a shelter from anything bothering me. Recently, services have been especially meaningful as there has been more to escape.

It’s no secret that being a Jew in America over the last couple of weeks has been physically and emotionally difficult. From Kanye’s tweets rekindling age-old tropes that Jews control the world to antisemitic attacks on Jewish political candidates to the broad threat last Thursday against all synagogues in my home state of New Jersey, it has felt like a tidal wave of hatred toward Jews.

This isn’t new. Antisemitism is factored into the Jewish experience. Growing up, I was taught by family members and religious leaders that I am part of a persecuted people — that we’ll always end up the scapegoat. I learned early on that my pride in my Judaism was my biggest defense against antisemitism. Something I wasn’t taught, however, was how to face hostility within environments that encourage advanced education and critical thinking: college campuses.

NU’s population is a medley of students, diverse in experiences and opinions, united by calls to fight for something greater than ourselves. This only works if we build one another up in the process. Unfortunately, I rarely see this on campus. I have instead faced hostility several times throughout my NU experience, most recently last weekend.

As a social-justice-oriented student, I could focus on a student group’s invocation of social justice to rally support while actively diminishing — and literally papering over — other causes.

As a student who cares about constructive discourse, I could focus on that group’s refusal to engage in conversation about the nuances of a very real, complex conflict. 

And as a Jewish student, I could focus on members of that organization telling me I cannot understand what it feels like to have my identity attacked.

Instead, I choose to focus on what I love.

I love being Jewish, every part of it. I love attending Shabbat services and dinner, I love spending my days at Hillel, I love studying Jewish texts, I love baking challah with my mom, I love setting up the Seder plate, I love chanting Haftarah, I love wearing my Hebrew name around my neck.

I love Israel. In a place and time fixated on cancel culture, I’m sure this simple three-word phrase may get me canceled by some. But it’s a crucial part of my Jewish identity.

I love America. I criticize the U.S. and Israel, their leaders, systems, and laws, while feeling immense passion for and commitment to the success of both nations. Criticism is not the antithesis of patriotism; it’s a reflection of it.

Still, I understand there is a line between criticizing a government and harming a people. Because that line can get blurry, words really matter.

“From the River to the Sea” is a slogan used by Hamas — a terrorist organization — as a rallying cry to destroy the entire State of Israel and all of its Jewish inhabitants. The phrase originated more than 30 years ago, evolving from language in the 1988 Hamas charter that promoted the destruction of Jews, echoing Adolf Hitler’s messaging on the merits of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This is where I draw the line.

When that slogan is plastered around the walls of buildings where I study, when it’s hung across The Arch that I walk under every day, when it’s painted over The Rock that I helped paint only five hours earlier — in support of voting for gun safety and reproductive rights — I take offense. I feel hurt. I get angry.

Spewing hate will never end in peace, and tearing down other causes is not a constructive way to promote your own.

When similar situations have taken place on campus in the past, I’ve remained silent, writing down how offended, hurt and angry I am, leaving it in the safety of my Google Drive. But, nothing ever changes, so I’m done staying silent. I’m done being blamed for the actions of the Israeli government. I’m done being told I’m undeserving of a safe, secure Jewish homeland.

I will still go on Birthright. I will still attend Hillel services. I will still don my Hebrew necklace. I will not relinquish my pride in my Jewish identity just because someone doesn’t like all that my identity entails.

The harmful rhetoric adorning the walls of campus buildings and populating my Twitter feed doesn’t extinguish my Jewish pride, it ignites it. I am more proud to be Jewish than anyone could ever hate me for it. But pride doesn’t protect students from harmful rhetoric — only concrete action can do that.

The NU administration should consider “From the River to the Sea” as a hateful slogan and treat it as such.

To my fellow Jewish students: Take pride in your Judaism. Call on the University to condemn a terrorist organization’s tagline. Speak up when you too take offense, feel hurt or get angry.

To students who promote or subscribe to the harmful messaging that frequently covers this campus: Come talk with me. Ask questions. And, maybe at some point, join me for a Shabbat dinner.

As I sit in services this Friday, I’ll feel especially grateful to be here and especially proud of my Judaism. I hope every NU student gets to feel just as connected with their identity and as proud to be who they are. I hope this campus can become a model for campuses across the country in how to appreciate one another and their causes while fighting for one’s own. And I hope we can eliminate hate and build one another up along the way.

Lily Cohen is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.